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Another day, another story involving sexual assault in sports

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Portland Trail Blazers Introduce Chauncey Billups as Head Coach Press Conference Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Another day, another story. Chauncey Billups and Jason Kidd being granted head coaching jobs in the NBA, despite having assault issues against women in their pasts, is last week’s news. This week the focus has moved on to Trevor Bauer, the Major League Baseball 2020 Cy Young winner who is accused of choking a woman unconscious and fracturing her skull - per her request and consent, according to his lawyer.

Will he lose his professional sports job? Unlikely, judging by past events. Aroldis Chapman, another pitcher, was suspended 30 games a few years ago for an incident involving physical contact with his girlfriend and gunshots during their argument, but the Chicago Cubs traded for him because his talent on the field could help them chase a championship. It worked - the Cubs won.

Also in baseball, the Houston Astros traded for Robert Asuna - also a violator of the league’s domestic violence policy. After the team clinched the pennant, the Astros’ Assistant General Manager Brandon Taubman yelled at three female reporters multiple times, “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so [f-word] glad we got Osuna!” Taubman was fired over this, showing that the line for professional ball clubs is not domestic violence or sexual assault, but being too gauche about the fact that the teams don’t care about domestic violence or sexual assault.

But let’s get back to last week’s news. The Dallas Mavericks have had not one but two sexual harassment and workplace misconduct investigations since 2018, as well as a recent high-profile article about front office dysfunction that may have led to Rick Carlisle leaving and this current need to restructure their entire organizational structure. Into that void they have chosen to drop Jason Kidd, who has a list of machinations trying to undermine other front offices and coaching situations in his past, as well as both allegations of domestic violence and conviction on at least one count.

Chauncey Billups was made head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers ahead of the other finalist, Becky Hammon, throwing the sexual assault accusation in his past into even starker relief. Portland is a liberal town, and sexual assault issues have gained a lot of traction there - traction that the Trail Blazers did nothing to undo. The press conference to introduce Billups was a joke, with the team’s PR person cutting off questions after this suspicious sign from the general manager Neil Olshey.

The Blazers provided no insight into their process, nothing beyond a literal “you’re just going to have to take our word” that it was investigated at all. And Chauncey Billups himself was not allowed to take follow-up questions at the introductory press conference. Keep in mind that the chair and trustee in charge of the Trail Blazers, Jody Allen, has also has had sexual harassment allegations made against her by former bodyguards and staff.

None of these allegations has stopped the upward climb of any of these people. None of them have been refused anything significant in their careers. The NBA has positioned itself as socially conscious, but the league is about making money while playing a sport. The coaching resumes on the two new NBA head coaches are not especially strong, but the teams are balancing wins against public perception, and time and time again make the calculation that employing people with serious allegations or convictions in their past is not a serious issue - as long as they win.

Should concerns from a decade or two ago be disqualifiers? Perhaps not. I personally am anti-carceral, which does not mean anti-consequences. Should the inability to hold the top coaching job in a sport, a job that can only be held by thirty men - because at this point they are all men - be considered too great a penalty? It’s not like Billups and Kidd had been excommunicated from the sport. Both worked for teams just last year in coaching roles. They just were not the Head Coach, and were not making personnel decisions or giving speeches or providing team discipline. They were not in a position to hire women assistant coaches, or set the tone for how the team functions or what sorts of players it goes after.

Of the two former basketball players up for the Portland job, the one with more coaching experience is Becky Hammon. Billups has one year of coaching as an assistant on his resume, so he was not selected for that. He was, however, playing for the Los Angeles Clippers when his new GM was the GM there as well. Jason Kidd has two under-.500 head coaching stops on his resume, complete with infighting incidents with management, but he’s a hero in Dallas where he helped win a title. And that’s the problem: it’s not enough for friends to believe the person in question changed, not now that the person in question is also a face of his franchise and the person most tied to its on-court and off-court direction.

Utah Jazz v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

As I said, sports franchises are there to make money. Winning games is the expected by-product of making money, and some franchises prioritize winning games over making money. But it’s the fans of the teams that allow them to create this vast wealth, in terms of yearly gate revenue as well as media contracts and the buoyed valuation of the teams. The Trail Blazers are worth $1.9 billion according to Forbes. The Mavericks are worth $2.45 billion.

Fans are not shareholders. They do not receive anything from these valuations. What they receive from the transactional nature of their relationship with the sports experience, a team that represents them in some way. Women are fans of these organizations. Women work in these offices and organizations, interact with these men. Power imbalances abound and whenever a line is crossed the repercussions seem incredibly underwhelming. The men get to “learn and grow” while the women get to know that nothing will change, that the second verse will remain the same as the first because those in charge happen to like the song.

Chauncey Billups is a hero in Denver. Played high school ball in Park Hill for George Washington High School, was the local-kid-made-good at the University of Colorado and then went on to win a championship in Detroit before returning briefly to the Denver Nuggets to help them to the Western Conference Finals. In all that, I never remember this allegation being brought up. Success washed it clean away.

Kobe Bryant, on the other hand, got booed in Denver for the remainder of his career for his role in an assault that happened in Colorado.

Kobe’s statement at the trial includes this part:

“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”

The question is how many times, in how many sports, players and now coaches are going to be allowed to say “we view it differently” with zero significant repercussions? Derrick Rose’s redemption tour the past few years has included a lot of “he has overcome on and off-the-court setbacks” conversation, and as The Guardian underlines in this article, you are not “overcoming” sexual assault when you admit in court that you have no idea what consent is nor did you have it prior to group sex with your accuser.

Sexual assault allegations are not something to overcome, they’re something to avoid. That’s not always possible, especially when a lawsuit may provide financial incentive - and despite false accusations being a very low percentage, they do happen. But the vast majority of accusations are credible, if not always prosecutable. The choice of which accusations or offenses have limiting consequences and which can be overcome is not going to be a bright-line rule in any field, and sports is not excluded from that.

Portland Trail Blazers Introduce Chauncey Billups as Head Coach Press Conference Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

So let’s simplify: we are dealing with millionaires who live lives far beyond what most of us can imagine, and will have opportunities granted to them the rest of their lives that most of us cannot achieve. The only thing that can derail them once they’ve achieved fame and fortune in their industry is their own bad behavior, some sort of despicable actions toward other people (or in Michael Vick’s case, dogs). Should said behavior disqualify them from participation in their sport, or the highest levels of coaching and front office management?

If you are going to hire an untested or so-far-mediocre coach because he is friends with the right people and you believe that makes him the right fit for the job, then you should be able to defend it. And the person you hired should be able to defend it. The experience of professional sports for fans is an expensive and time-intensive one, and placing someone in a position of power within an organization - as a player or a coach - requires someone who can connect to the fanbase. That means children and adults, people of all genders and colors and creeds. Whether Kidd or Billups could make that immediate connection is unknown, because the talk this past week has centered entirely on the issues that the teams and their new head coaches were for some reason completely unprepared to address. But the beat goes on, and because no one in charge of the Blazers or Mavericks had any plan other than “hire my friend” those men will get to start their new jobs by digging out from this self-created issue - and those of us who have suffered sexual assaults will continue to see just how little that matters to anyone with money and power.

There is a meltdown going on amongst Dodgers fans and observers over what to do about Trevor Bauer. Kidd and Billups are last week’s news, their fates already decided - and once again with no meaningful repercussions for the men of whom questions are barely asked, let alone answered. Becky Hammon quietly had her name slandered on background checks to reporters in an attempt to make Portland’s choice more palatable. When you hear stories, think about who is mentioned and who is not, about whose opinions matter and whose do not.

Another day, another story. Or the same story, told over and over and over again. Did I mention the Washington Football Team was just fined $10 million on Thursday for a workplace that enabled sexual harassment from the owner on down? Don’t worry, the team owner Dan Snyder will “briefly step away” and spend a few minutes in time-out to think about what he’s done.

On it goes.